The Ankle Joint

This article is reproduced with the kind permission of Dr. Dave Muir 6th Dan IJKA
Copyright © Dr. David Muir ~ January 2004

IJKA Karate, Technical article, Ankle

The all-important Ankle joint

The ankle joint. Like all the other joints in your body, it plays a role in the performance of your karate. Actually some would say it place a very important role in your karate. In fact, some may say that it is the most important body joint as far as your performance of karate is concerned. That statement opens up the probability of subjective debate. So I will modify the statement to say that, in my opinion, you should pay special attention to developing the mobility of your ankle joint and in doing so, I believe that your performance in karate will improve.                
In the earlier stage of my study of shotokan karate I watched the way the Japanese karateka moved when they were performing karate and I remember thinking “they move as though they are on roller skates while we move like carthorses”. When they moved forward to attack they arrived in your face as though propelled from a cannon. When I was with groups of Westerners watching Japanese karateka performing I would often hear said “it is because they are so supple in the hips. They are like that because they don’t use chairs – they sit on the floor all the time”. This may contribute towards the mobility of movement but I doubt if it plays a major part. I have also heard said “it is because they have a different pelvic construction”. I have no idea if the Japanese pelvic construction is different from mine but I could never accept that even such a difference should mean that I cannot move in the same manner as a Japanese person. It is now my opinion that this fast and smooth movement can be attributed to the attention that is paid to the ankle joint.

My attention was first brought to the ankle joint by Kanazawa sensei in the 80’s during a course in Aberdeen. At that time it had become common knowledge that sensei was also studying tai chi. Also at that time I had spent a short period in Japan and had met a tai chi master who was associated with the SKI. For me this was a good setting for sensei to announce at the course that “it was good to squeeze the area at the front of the ankle joint”. He went on to say that an energy line passed in this area and the squeezing of this area would manipulate the “acupressure point” and in turn would “make the whole body supple”. I remember thinking at the time “I wonder if that is true or if it is a load of bollocks”. But it was subconsciously stored away for later investigation and thought.

A few years later at one of the big SKI summer courses in Nottingham I remember Kato sensei ranting on about how we had our feet positions all wrong when performing in front stance. There were perhaps 200 people at the course and he could not get his point across to those at the back of the hall. So he grabbed a pair of shoes, put them on his hands and displayed the correct feet positions on the wall at head height. Both shoes were pointing with their longitudinal axis parallel to the direction of the stance. But what has that got to do with the ankle joint, you may ask. At the time I did not know either, but again it was subconsciously stored away for later thought.

Now lets step back and consider generally the development (as I see it anyway) of karate in the UK. In the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s the Japanese instructors could be considered to have taught karate in an ‘aerobic’ fashion. The stances, punches, blocks, kicks and kata were all taught to us at the outset and then they were all combined in a variety of movements that were completed over and over again at courses up and down the country. There was not much teaching of detailed techniques. Then in the 90’s the concept of single hip movement (linear motion, not rotational motion) and back leg knee position was introduced. Why it was not introduced at the outset is a mystery to me. I have my own theory but that is another matter. Nonetheless its inclusion was the final ‘key’ that I needed to start investigating the ankle joint.

Lets consider these three points:-
1.    Squeeze the front of the ankle joint, it will make you supple (?)
2.    Always have both feet pointing in the direction of the front stance.
3.    Relax the back knee joint to allow the associated side of the hip to move back linearly.

The first point I consider to be a by-product; if it does work then that is nice. I certainly am not qualified to comment on this point. The second point, although introduced separately by Kato sensei in the 80’s, actually has great bearing on the third point. So these two points will be considered together, in the form of front stance.

Let’s consider the back foot first. Although it would seem obvious that the back foot should be pointing in the direction of the stance (the direction of travel), it is all too common to see beginners and dan grades standing in front stance with the back foot splayed out at angles varying from 0º to 90º to the direction of the stance (ref. fig. 1).

My opinion is that this foot position is adopted out of laziness and lack of attention to detail. I give three reasons why the foot should be parallel to the stance.

IJKA Karate, Technical article, Ankle

Fig 1. Back foot shown splayed out

1. As a test, try a practice sprint start, without blocks, once with the back foot at an angle and once with the back foot in the direction of travel. It will be obvious to all that the foot parallel to the stance gives the best thrust forward.

2. Consider a basic reverse punch delivered from front stance. In the final position of the punch the hips are required to be square to the punch. For the hips to be square to the punch, the knee of the back leg has to be pointing in the direction of the stance/punch. For the knee to be in this position the back foot has to be in the direction of the stance/punch. Therefore at the end of the punch the foot, the knee and the hip are all forward and in the direction of the punch. This is the natural position and no forces are required to attain this position. Now pull the punch and punching hip backwards (do not rotate the hip). The knee and foot positions remain the same. This is the ready position for punching and I would call it the unnatural position as it has to be forced and some pressure should be felt at the front of the ankle joint (remember Kanazawa sensei’s earlier teaching!). When in this unnatural, ‘ready’ position one only has to relax the ankle joint and hip to allow the punching side of the body to fall into the final punching (natural) position. I liken it to drawing back a bow and then releasing the string. The more the foot is angled away from direction of the punch the more difficult it is to turn the knee towards the punch and the more difficult it is to push the hip forward with the punch. The end result is a restricted punch.

3. Now let’s look at the execution of kazami geri. For any front leg kick to be effective from the front stance the following criteria (as a minimum) must be met: the back foot must not move; the body should not move back in the stance prior to the kick being executed; the hips should remain at the same level and should be pushed forward with the kick; and overall stance must not rise upwards. Don’t take my word for it, look at any video of the master of this technique, Tanaka sensei. The only way that these criteria can be met coincidentally is if the front foot is parallel to the direction of the stance/kick.

Now let’s consider the front foot. The front foot is normally and by default, pointing in the direction of the stance. Although some years ago it used to be fashionable to turn the foot ‘into’ the stance and also to force the knee outwards from the stance, to give a semblance of a ‘strong and powerful’ stance. Thankfully this bad practice has all but disappeared. At recent courses Asai sensei has reconfirmed that basic front and back stance “should be natural and not forced”.
To move forward effectively in front stance, one has to follow the sequence of: maintain the front foot in its position and orientation; push the knee forward and rotate over the ankle joint; push the hips and body forward from the back foot (debatable point but not relevant in this discussion). All this has to be done whilst maintaining the body at the same height, i.e. no up-down movement during the step forward. An analogy of this sequence is the simple action of walking. Generally, most people have both feet pointing forward when they are walking, or running for that mater. However, when this sequence of movement is performed in front stance and at a low body height it places a lot of pressure on the front of the ankle joint of the front foot. But if all these criteria are met then the step forward in front stance is achieved “as though on roller skates”. So why does this not happen for everyone? It does not happen because the ankle joint is neglected, the ensuing pressure is subconsciously considered unacceptable and bad habits are adopted to relieve the pressure. The habits that are adopted to relieve this pressure are:

1. Prior to moving, the front foot is rotated about the heel in an outward direction (ref. fig. 2). Forward motive power from the front foot and calf muscles is lost and in the ‘new’ stance the back foot is now splayed outwards and the back foot problems discussed earlier are now happening.

Fig 2. Front foot shown spayed out

2. Prior to moving, the front foot is pulled backwards, hence reducing the length of the stance closer to that of normal walking length and thereby eliminating the pressure. This results in a reduced distance being achieved in the step, i.e. the target is not met.

3. During the stepping movement the knee is partially straightened and the overall height of body is raised. This increases the angle at the front of the ankle and therefore reduces the pressure. However this results in a longer distance travelled and therefore slower time to execute the step. The heightening of the centre of gravity during the step is also a dangerous practice in any martial art.

I earlier set out my criteria for moving forward effectively and I would like to re-emphasise some of the criteria which should eliminate the foregoing three habits.

1. During the step forward maintain the forward foot in its position and orientation
2. Before any foot movement push the body, hips and, most importantly, the knee forward thereby reducing the angle at the front of the ankle and loading up the front foot (ref. fig 3).
3. At no time during the step forward should the heel of the forward foot be raised from the floor.

Fig. 3. Front knee pushed forward

To summarise, it is my opinion that the basis for ankle mobility in karate begins with the correct foot positioning and movement in front stance. This should be taught and studied at the earliest stage of a person’s karate career. Once this has been mastered then I believe a person’s general mobility in karate will be greatly enhanced.

And what about the side effect mentioned by Kanazawa sensei that squeezing the front of the ankle joint will make your whole body supple, I hear you ask. Well I still cannot give you a definitive answer. All I can say is that I have studied the whole aspect of the ankle joint over the last 10 years and have incorporated it into my own training. I believe that my mobility and my general flexibility has been enhanced, at a time when advancing years (age 53 at time of writing) would normally result in a deterioration of mobility and flexibility.

So how can one promote a supple ankle joint? The best training exercise is to keep concentrating on the position and orientation of the feet in front stance until it becomes second nature that all movements are performed with both feet parallel to the direction of travel. Start by stepping forward slowly in front stance thereby allowing you to control the momentum forces that can play havoc with foot positions. Also regularly practice kizame migeri, again concentrating on maintaining back foot position and orientation. If necessary start with a shorter but still low stance and gradually lengthen your stance as your ankle becomes more supple. Augment these exercises by adding the following to your warm-up session: bend one leg and lift the other foot and place it behind the bent knee; push the knee forward with the instep of your foot; bend your knee until your heel lifts from the floor; return to the ‘relaxed’ bent knee position; do ten repetitions of this, each time trying to get lower before your ankle lifts from the floor (ref fig 4). If balance becomes a problem, then do this exercise with your hands against a wall to support you.

Fig. 4. Exercise for ankle joints

You cannot do this type of ‘personal development’ in a normal dojo environment so find yourself some spare time at the local community sports centre – it will be worth it.

Throughout this article I often use the words and phrases ‘laziness’, ‘lack of attention’, ‘carelessness’, ‘bad habits’, etc.. When I use them I am referring to myself. Like everyone else, I find the physical study of karate to be a constant struggle against apathy. I hope that, by detailing in this article what may appear to most people to be the obvious, it will help promote some among you to delve deeper into the micro aspects of karate. Please give it a try – it worked for me.

If you wish to discuss this, or other karate related matters, with me please contact me

Dave Muir

Copyright © Dr. David Muir ~ January 2004